The Tambinder Engine (part three)
The Tambinder Engine
A McAlley Story
She bagged the customer’s bottles with care, passed them across the counter. This one leaned to her. “Dustin is out of the country, I’ve heard. I know someone taking a flight tomorrow, who can carry a letter.”
Deenie’s eyes shot all around the store. A car door slammed in the lot, a body soon in sight, an arm reaching. She bent over the business card. She knew she had tried to speak and been unable.
He drew the card to himself again, his touch in an odd way compassionate. She watched him write and tuck away his pen. He laid twenty dollars on the counter, and was gone without ringing up. The fresh customer bustled on, with his wants in mind, soda water and gin jabbed out in turn for her to scan.
She was alone.
The camera would show the back of her head, her shoulders, and the hands that hadn’t accounted for the earlier purchase, hadn’t made change. She rolled back the receipt copy, found the nuisance amount of $17.83, tried to do the sum in her head.
“What goes on here?’ her boss asked.
“You’ve come out to see me, how nice.”
“That guy put something across the counter. I saw you take it.”
She found herself walking a meander, like an amnesiac…
Having worked herself from the tiny lot, her rear fender going bang against a post. Tempted to pull up, change position, let the tires screech…
Just possibly contacting Mr. Ordney’s car as she lit out.
“Deenie!” she said aloud. “You will not borrow trouble, you of all people.”
She exited in meekness, left her car outside a trio of shops, stepped past a pair of chained bins. The clandestine alley met a street Deenie never used, still within her sense of orientation, and she walked, wanting her mind to tell her how.
How to compose this letter to her son. How to call McAlley…he would arrive tomorrow, and she wasn’t employed at Ordney’s Wine and Spirits. A horn drove her back to the curb, making her wonder, why cross here?
A wavering turn brought her apologizing, into another walker.
“You look like you need a cup of coffee,” the woman said. She patted Deenie’s arm, caught her sleeve. “Come along, I’ll buy. My name is Tirza.”
The glass-fronted space had the bones of a familiar chain, but the orange wall treatments were painted clean white, curtains hung. A stack of cloth napkins sat on a wheeled table, next to condiments in ceramic pots. The trays remained, but the dishes were real, the forks, knives, and spoons real, the styles mixed.
Hot lunch was in the air, a smell of garlic bread and pasta sauce. Dustin’s vanishing had led Deenie to a year of cold, packaged things.
“What do you want?” Tirza asked.
To cry, was the answer. After, with the great kindness of coffee and a meal given free, and the lie told, the broken tale she’d quit, not been fired (with no implication the job had lasted three months), Deenie was ashamed…she had made herself a beholden, dishonest woman.
At Gaia she sorted discarded blouses and bedsheets, cut and hemmed squares of them into further cloth napkins, or pillowcases, tops of quilts. Tirza was a saver of souls. Finding another lost one, a woman without work, Tirza had seen she got it. That was half Deenie’s reason for never speaking.
Darling, all I want from you is a letter. I don’t expect you to come home. When you decide to, if you do, I’ll find the money.
On the page, this looked short. What else? Not I love you…because to Dustin these words laid a claim. It bothered him.
“What’s it mean? Like we’re in the middle of something, and you say love, and I have to say it back, so we can pretend we’re not fighting…”
And not, what sort of place are you living in? Dus would rightly guess she was asking about Victor.
Love, your mother, she had signed it (anyway), the three sentences her best effort, nothing more thought of.
“How much postage?” she asked McAlley.
At eight a.m., he had rung her bell. Ordney’s opened at nine, so she credited her mysterious helper with guessing…that she was not rushing to punch the clock.
“The letter will go by messenger, free of charge.”
“I haven’t sealed it. I keep thinking I should put a check in.”
“You might. Intentions count. But he’ll never redeem it.”
“What place? What country?”
McAlley named a famous capital. How did my son manage? she asked inside. Another hemisphere! The gift, if Victor’s, had been costly, ill-boding.
“What sort of life is he leading? Has he got work?”
“And does he live alone?” she added, before McAlley’s lips had formed a word. Be crass, be a harpy of a mother, Deenie counselled herself. It can’t matter if this man will tell, or won’t, or can’t…
“He lives in a dormitory arrangement. He has lucked into it. You see, an apartment tower collapsed, and the residents were rehoused…quite several undocumented.”
“He pretended he belonged. Well, clever.”
“It is the acceleration of decay,” McAlley said. “Things come on so much hotter and faster than they once did. But the collapse provided employment, too. They’d decided the survivors deserved first refusal, the jobs being underwritten by the government, the area getting little enough of largess.”
Deenie buried her face, playacting. But as to Dustin’s gambits, she felt apologetic and admiring together. She dropped her hands, to see McAlley smile, in his sad, feeling way.
“But who are his friends, do you know?”
The Tambinder Engine
(2022, Stephanie Foster)